Sports Nut

How To Lick the Home Run Glut 

I have nothing against the home run. Outside of bullpen-clearing brawls, it is the most exciting thing that can happen in a baseball game, and more than anything else, it has fueled the sport’s popularity in recent years. But in an age when even puny shortstops slug 20 a year, there’s no denying that the balance between hitters and pitchers has gotten out of whack. It’s nearly as big a competitive problem as the disparity between big- and small-market teams. And, as with that issue, the usual remedies lack inspiration.

The two favorites—raise the mound a few inches and/or force umpires to abide by the rulebook and call letter-high strikes—will please only the purists. Home runs and ERAs will dip in unison, and that will be that. Most fans won’t be stirred one way or the other.

I have a better idea: Bring back the spitball. Legalize it.

There are basically two kinds of spitballs—one involves applying a lubricant to the surface of the ball, the other making an abrasion on it—but both have the same effect: They enable pitchers to throw weird, wobbly balls that keep hitters guessing and off-balance.

For the first 20 years of the century, the spitball was legal. Baseball was different then. Home runs were considered freakish events, disruptive to the natural rhythms of the game. But when Babe Ruth started swatting them out of the park, fans fell in love. The home run explosion marked the final passage of baseball out of the cow fields and into the modern era. To clean up its image—and facilitate the hitting of more home runs—baseball decided to outlaw the spitter.

There was much resistance. After all, a ban would rob slop-ball specialists of their livelihood. Then, in 1920, Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was killed by a beanball. Witnesses, including the catcher Muddy Ruel, said Chapman made no effort to get out of the way of the killer pitch. The reason, many believed, was that the ball was so soiled, he hadn’t been able to see it as it hurtled toward him. That did it; the spitball had to go. (Seventeen veteran pitchers, including the great Burleigh Grimes, received special grandfather status and were allowed to doctor the ball for the rest of their careers.)

Hitters have pretty much had their way ever since. Yes, there have been occasional downturns in home run output but, like the stock market, the long ball industry has outshone even the irrational exuberance of the roaring ‘20s. And there is no end in sight. That’s why the spitball should be officially brought back.

It will pay dividends well beyond the slowing of home run growth. Baseball’s celebration of old-fashioned values is almost entirely superficial—the neo-traditional ballparks and button-down-the-front uniforms look nice, but big deal. The spit ball would revive that hard-nosed, spike-the-shortstop play of the early part of the century. That kind of nostalgia would spice up the game and keep fans interested even when home runs go down. Plus, the spitball would extend the careers of crafty old veteran pitchers like Orel Hershiser. Maybe Gaylord Perry, the spitball king, would attempt a comeback. This, too, would be good for the game.

It shouldn’t be too hard to prevent balls from being so discolored that hitters can’t see them. Along with their rosin bags, pitchers could be allowed a vat of Vaseline on the mound. Any urge to apply it too liberally would be checked by their fielders, who have to catch and throw the same ball. And if that extra bit of juice means that every now and then a pitcher gets a little wild, well, that’s why they invented batting helmets.